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Op-Ed: Hosting the Olympics Will Only Increase Mass Surveillance and Policing in Los Angeles

How an Olympic city council vote ushered in a new era of policing in Los Angeles

Chart explaining the surveillance and policing strategies tied to COPPSC
COPPSC Command Chart (LA24/28 Bid Book)

In late March, the Los Angeles City Council held a divided vote on the security plan for the 2028 Olympics. Council members Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman voted against entering into an agreement with the California Olympic and Paralympic Public Safety Command (COPPSC) because fundamental questions about Olympic security went unanswered. Indeed, LA28’s unflinching promotion of the games blatantly ignores the harmful impact Olympic security plans will have on the efforts to reimagine public safety in the city, such as the impact on the city’s immigrant populations, the expansion of police militarization and sweeps of unhoused people, and the use of facial recognition technology to engage in mass surveillance.

As the mayor and city council enter into a memorandum of understanding to join the COPPSC, the move threatens to greatly expand police power, resources, and authority in the city. The COPPSC, an oversight body authorized by the State of California, will facilitate a network of law enforcement agencies for Olympic security, including the FBI, Customs and Border Patrol, and the U.S. Military, among a number of others. This broad law enforcement network organized under the provisions of COPPSC will not end until January 1, 2029.

Quite simply, the divided Council vote reveals there is no 2028 Olympic security plan that does not require the expansion of policing and surveillance. The security needs for the Olympics are in fundamental contradiction with the desires of Angelenos to reduce funding to the LAPD and reimagine public safety in the wake of the Summer 2020 protests. It also raises the question, why are more council members and LA28 boosters not acknowledging that there is no Olympic security plan without police expansion and, more crucially, the serious consequences of an expanded security apparatus for the city’s most vulnerable populations?

The first divided vote on the Olympics in the seven-year bid process reveals a need for transparency from LA28 and the Council that the Games will lead to more policing, not less, and negatively impact the city’s most vulnerable communities.

Lessons from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games are instructive. 

Olympic Torch Tower of the Los Angeles Coliseum on the day of the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Olympic Torch Tower of the Los Angeles Coliseum on the day of the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

If the most notorious example of the expansion and militarization of the police stemming from the ‘84 Games came when the LAPD used a tank-like vehicle to batter-ram houses during the war on drugs, the expansion of policing was more insidious. As early as 1980, Chief of Police Daryl Gates hoped to use the Olympics to expand the LAPD’s intelligence-gathering unit, the Public Disorder Intelligence Division (PDID), which was later disbanded after a lawsuit filed by activists exposed the division’s illegal, politically-motivated spying. Gates also attempted to use the need for intelligence during the Olympics to oppose, unsuccessfully, a freedom of information ordinance proposed as a remedy to illegal police spying.

Although the PDID was disbanded by the start of the ‘84 Games, the efforts of Gates to expand police intelligence capacity is a warning for 2028 when the potential of a massive expansion of surveillance capacity will only increase due to sophisticated advances in digital data gathering. Indeed, the inevitable designation of the 2028 games as a National Special Security Events (NSSE), as the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics were designated, will lead to a massive growth in law enforcement capacity with potentially devastating consequences. In particular, as the Salt Lake Olympics revealed, the NSSE designation has the potential to result in mass surveillance.

The ‘84 Games also brought a range of law enforcement agencies to the city. The Olympics Major Crime Task Force, an interagency agreement between the LAPD, Sheriff’s Department, and FBI, conducted mass sweeps to rid areas surrounding Olympic venues of “gang” members, drug dealers, sex workers, and homeless residents leading up to the Games. In addition, more than 170 police agencies cooperated to create a crime alert network stretching from Oregon to the Mexican border. The LAPD also fast-tracked a new wave of recruits through training to add to what Captain William Rathburn, the LAPD’s Olympic coordinator and director of the department’s gang sweep program, called an effort “absolutely unprecedented in the history of law enforcement in the United States.”

Of course, the ‘84 Games not only led to broad cooperation and surveillance by law enforcementit also expanded police resources to buy equipment and pay police overtime. The LAPD used its $800,000 Olympic budget to buy an arsenal of machine guns, infrared-enhanced viewing devices, and radio systems. The Los Angeles Police Protective League also entered a memorandum of understanding with the city to provide police officers with overtime and hazard pay for Olympic duty. The overwhelming police presence may have kept violence to a minimum during the games—at the cost of “trying to sanitize the area”—but also contributed to the dramatic growth of the LAPD’s capacity to wage a militarized war on drugs after the Games.

Fears of the potential assault on immigrant populations in 2028 are not unfounded, either. When Mayor Tom Bradley accepted the help of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) during the 1992 rebellion, agents used the crisis to target immigrant neighborhoods and deport undocumented residents. The involvement of CBP in COPPSC threatens to do the same in 2028.

The Council and LA28 should be honest with Los Angeles residents that holding the Olympics will expand police power and resources, ignores the demand to reimagine public safety, and will result in the continued targeting of the city’s immigrant and unhoused populations that are in need of protection not policing.